Following is continued “Q & A” with Decatur native
Decatur native Dr. James Loewen is an author, educator and one of America’s most widely respected cultural historians. His work is devoted to exploring how our nation reinterprets its complicated past. He earned a Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University, then went on to teach for 40 years in Mississippi, at the University of Vermont and in the nation’s capital. He maintains that examining multiple viewpoints equips students to grow more personally invested in their citizenship, as well as kindling their interest in the importance of history as a subject.
Two years of research at the Smithsonian Institute yielded LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME, winner of the 1996 American Book Award, the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship, and the American Educational Studies Association Critics Choice Award. The Gustavus Myers Foundation named his latest effort, SUNDOWN TOWNS, one of ten Distinguished Books of 2005. Loewen is currently a private scholar in Washington, D.C. and visiting Professor of Sociology at Catholic University. He recently corresponded with Decatur Magazine on several topics.
ZS: Your lifework is largely devoted to exploring
how we as Americans remember our collective past. What was your earliest
inkling that a lot of the historical "truths" or certainties
we're presented with may not be exactly as they seem?
It was a freshman course in Introductory Sociology at Carleton College in Minnesota that began to open my eyes. Sociology teaches us to think about WHY things are said or written, and the why may not always simply be "because they are true." After all, even for true statements, there are an infinite number that could be said or written at a given point in time, and an even larger infinite number of false statements! So a statement in a history textbook (or elsewhere) may not be true and deserves examination.
ZS: Related question… what would your third- (or fifth- or seventh-) grade teacher have to say about you? Were you a pain in this person's posterior? I have a hard time deciding whether you were the class clown or the serious young scholar. Bits of both personalities surface in your prose. I have a mental image of you reading in the back of the room, occasionally looking up to offer a wisecrack or insight, and generally confounding your instructor with precocious questions.
JL: Often I was the class clown. An important family legend, unfortunately true, concerns my sister, Mary Loewen, who followed me at MacArthur High School. Although she came along three years later, when MacArthur's German teacher, Herr Kirby, encountered her, he said, "Mary Loewen. Loewen. Hm. Any relationship to Jim Loewen?"
Proudly she said, "He's my brother."
Herr Kirby replied, "Then you sit right HERE, where I can keep an eye on you!" pointing to the front-row seat closest to his desk.
I did earn a National Merit Scholarship, though, owing to my score on the PSAT, a test I've spent some time debunking ever since.
ZS: What books have been the most influential in shaping your view of the world?
JL: Two books have had the best influence on me: Thorstein Veblen's THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS taught me to look beneath the surface of social life. James Agee's LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN (with Walker Evans's photographs) taught me to have compassion for the downtrodden.
Both books helped me see that social forces cause most of us to wind up where and how we are. I did not wind up a bleeding-heart liberal — perish the thought! — but I hope I have some willingness to rebuke America for its sins, and not excuse them.
ZS: People who just skim the titles and jackets of your own books might assume that you focus on negative topics and read no further. In fact it's quite the opposite; a predominant theme in your work seems to be the notion of practical application — asking how we can move forward as a society that more truly practices what it preaches (liberty and opportunity for all). How is fostering a better "Landscape of Truth" important to America's present and future?
JL: I make a distinction between "nationalism" and "patriotism." Surely a nationalist is a person who says, "My country, Amurrika, right or wrong," while a patriot is one who rebukes his/her country for its sins, rather than excuses them, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass. Surely our American past, sundown towns and all, is not so bad that we cannot face it. And just as we expect Germany to memorialize the Holocaust, with appropriate memorials and historical markers, so must we memorialize the bad things we have done, not just the good.
If we realize, for example, that most towns in Central Illinois kept out African Americans through most of the twentieth century, formally or informally, then we will no longer mouth inanities like "What more do black people need from us? We've been helping them out ever since slavery!"
ZS: You say your next project will "resonate importantly with our national narrative." How so?
JL: When I get around to finishing SURPRISES ON THE LANDSCAPE, I intend it to tell important stories, but little-known ones. For example, Illinois has a monument to its third governor, Edward Coles, but almost no one, in or outside Illinois, knows what he did. What he did, almost single-handedly, was keep Illinois from becoming a slave state. (Few people realize that there was a major movement in the early 1820s to make Illinois a slave state.) Imagine, if the slave states had reached from New Orleans to Lake Michigan, so to go West you HAD to pass through a slave state -- New England would have been in the minority and the United States might have remained a slave nation for many more decades after the 1860s. Coles also engaged Thomas Jefferson in an intense and interesting discussion about freeing slaves, the result of which was, Coles freed his (and moved to Illinois), and Jefferson never managed to do so.
This story both resurrects an American hero and also says some important things about the era in which he lived.
ZS: Let's talk about research. To what extent has your reliance on oral history been influenced by your distrust of inaccurate or biased things people have written down in the past? Why is it important to gather these sources and treat them with deference?
JL: I don't rely on oral history when studying, say, Columbus (the man, not the city). But on a taboo topic like sundown towns, written history is usually much more biased than oral history. Anna, Illinois, for example, expelled its black population in 1909 in the aftermath of a "festival lynching" in nearby Cairo ....
.... Obviously, you want credible oral history with details and from more than one source. But on the recent past, oral history may be more accurate than written history, especially since the interviewer can ask questions of the source, which is hard to do if it's written.
ZS: I have friends and acquaintances with whom it is impossible to hold a civil discussion on politics or society in general. Everybody seems to feel attacked. Do you have this same difficulty socially or professionally? Are you frequently labeled as something other than you really are?
JL: Conservatives love my chapter (in LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME) about the U.S. government. Liberals love my chapters in that book about race relations. So I have not gotten too badly attacked. Some die-hard nationalists see my work as U.S.-bashing and call me a leftist. But my leftist friends deride me for "having no politics."
ZS: The sheer weight of information you provide — most notably in your latest book, SUNDOWN TOWNS — is often staggering. Do you do all the leg-work on your own, or are there colleagues scattered across different regions of the country who serve as assistants on a project? I know you invite input from anyone who feels they have valid information to contribute, and then evaluate it for credibility from there.
JL: I have no research assistants. But I do have people I call my "agents," all across the U.S., who like one or more of my books, contact me to say so, and then wind up researching their home town and letting me know what they find. Some of these people are credited by name in SUNDOWN TOWNS, such as Melissa Sue Brewer in Myakka City, Florida, who did lots of research on that town's violent expulsion of its black population in the 1930s. The most helpful single person was the remarkable Carolyn Stephens of Westfield, who got her college students thinking and writing about sundown towns. They (and she) completed many important interviews with white and black residents in east central Illinois.
ZS: What is the most surprising/alarming/amusing thing a student has ever said to you?
JL: From a student assistant of mine at the University of Vermont, an undergraduate, after noticing in about 1993 that I was teaching a course titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me” –
Student: "I'm really glad you're teaching that course, because I learned so many false things in high school!"
Me: "Great! Like what, for instance?"
ZS: This city is representative of many midwestern industrial towns in that it's seeking new ways to define itself (other than strictly as a manufacturing and shipping hub). What boyhood memories do you have of this city?
JL: When I grew up in Decatur, the Transfer House was in a huge traffic circle at Main and Main, with buses parked in a circle around it and cars traveling in a circle around that. Teeny-boppers for amusement on Saturday nights would get in their cars (or their parents' cars) and drive 'round and 'round the circle, sometimes trapping a senior citizen in their caravan, faster and faster. Well, what else were we to do? Go down and watch the Wabash passenger train come in?
(Interviewer’s note: Hope this doesn’t happen if we move it again!)
I certainly recall sitting in the Lincoln Theatre, capacity perhaps 2,000, sold-out, for the premiere of Love Me Tender, the first movie starring Elvis Presley. When he was killed late in the movie [oops, spoiled it for you!], the girl sitting next to me burst into tears and sobbed throughout the rest of the film.
Growing up, I was impressed that the class divisions in Decatur seemed more muted than in many other places. Working-class students could do well in high school and working-class candidates sometimes won public office. The famed sociologist C. Wright Mills -- who coined the phrase "power elite" -- wrote about this in "The Middle Classes in Middle-Sized Cities," which is about Decatur. Today, I hear that unions have been attacked successfully at Caterpillar, Staley's and Firestone and class divisions may have grown sharper. I hope not, because that hurts a community, just as racial divisions do. I wish Decatur the very best.
ZS: Do you know that there's a folk singer named James Loewen in Venice, California?
(EDITOR’S NOTE – there really is… Mr. Shields did not invent this entertainer.)
This is a supplement
to an article which originally appeared in the February/March 2006
issue of Decatur Magazine.
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